Authors: Penny Publications
Tags: #Asimov's #452
Ian R. MacLeod
has been an acclaimed writer of challenging and innosvative speculative and fantastic fiction for more than two decades. He grew up in the English West Midlands, studied law, spent some time working and dreaming in the civil service before moving on to teaching and house-husbandry. He now lives with his wife in the riverside town of Bewdley. Ian's most recent novel,
Wake Up and Dream,
won the Sidewise Award for Best Alternate History, while his previous works have won the Arthur C. Clarke, John W. Campbell, and World Fantasy Awards. The author's John Lennon-based story, "Snodgrass," was dramatized this year in the UK as part of the Sky Playhouse series, and it is the title story of his "best of" e-book collection. The idea for the theme and setting of "The Discovered Country" came in part from Keith Roberts' brilliant short story, "Weihnachtsabend," which has long been one of his favorites.
The trees of Farside are incredible. Fireash and oak. Greenbloom and maple. Shot through with every color of autumn as late afternoon sunlight blazes over the Seven Mountains' white peaks. He'd never seen such beauty as this when he was alive.
The virtual Bentley takes the bridge over the next gorge at a tirescream, then speeds on through crimson and gold. Another few miles, and he's following the coastal road beside the Westering Ocean. The sands are burnished, the rocks silver-threaded. Every new vista a fabulous creation. Then ahead, just as purple glower sweeps in from his rear-view over those dragon-haunted mountains, come the silhouette lights of a vast castle, high up on a ridge. It's the only habitation he's seen in hours.
This has to be it.
Northover lets the rise of the hill pull at the Bentley's impetus as its headlights sweep the driveway trees. Another turn, another glimpse of a headland, and there's Elsinore again, rising dark and sheer.
He tries to refuse the offer to carry his luggage made by the neat little creature that emerges into the lamp lit courtyard to greet him with clipboard, sharp shoes, and lemony smile. He's encountered many chimeras by now. The shop assistants, the street cleaners, the crew on the steamer ferry that brought him here. All substantially humanoid, and invariably polite, although amended as necessary to perform their tasks, and far stranger to his mind than the truly dead.
He follows a stairway up through rough-hewn stone. The thing's name is Kasaya. Ah, now. The east wing. I think you'll find what we have here more than adequate. If not... Well, you
promise to let me know. And this is called the Willow Room. And
enjoy your stay....
Northover wanders. Northover touches. Northover breathes. The interior of this large high-ceilinged suite with its crackling applewood fire and narrow, deep-set windows is done out in an elegantly understated arts-and-craftsy style. Among her many attributes, Thea Lorentz always did have excellent taste.
What's struck him most about Farside since he jerked into new existence on the bed in the cabin of that ship bound for New Erin is how unremittingly
everything seems. But the slick feel of this patterned silk bed throw... the spiky roughness of the teasels in the flower display... he's given up telling himself that everything he's experiencing is just some clever construct. The thing about it, the thing that makes it all so impossibly overwhelming, is that
here as well. Dead, but alive. The evidence of his corpse doubtless already incinerated, but his consciousness—the singularity of his existence, what philosophers once called "the conscious I," and theologians the soul, along with his memories and personality, the whole sense of self that had once inhabited pale jelly in his skull—transferred.
The bathroom is no surprise to him now. The dead do so many things the living do, so why not piss and shit as well? He strips and stands in the shower's warm blaze. He soaps, rinses. Reminds himself of what he must do, and say. He'd been warned that he'd soon become attracted to the blatant glories of this world, along with the new, young man's body he now inhabits. Better just to accept it rather than fight. All that matters is that he holds to the core of his resolve.
He towels himself dry. He pulls his watch back on—seemingly a Rolex, but a steel model, neatly unostentatious—and winds it carefully. He dresses. Hangs up his clothes in a walnut paneled wardrobe that smells faintly of mothballs, and hears a knock at the doors just as he slides his case beneath the bed.
"Yes? Come in...."
When he turns, he's expecting another chimera servant. But it's Thea Lorentz.
This, too, is something they'd tried to prepare him for. But encountering her after so long is much less of a shock than he's been expecting. Thea's image is as ubiquitous as that of Marilyn Munroe or the Virgin Mary back on Lifeside, and she really hasn't changed. She's dressed in a loose-f itting shirt. Loafers and slacks. Hair tied-back. No obvious evidence of any make-up. But the crisp white shirt with its rolled up cuffs shows her dark brown skin to perfection, and one lose strand of her tied back hair plays teasingly at her sculpted neck. A tangle of silver bracelets slide on her wrist as she steps forward to embrace him. Her breasts are unbound and she still smells warmly of the patchouli she always used to favor. Everything about her feels exactly the same. But why not? After all, she was already perfect when she was alive.
"Well...!" That warm blaze is still in her eyes, as well. "It really
"I know I'm springing a huge surprise. Just turning up from out of nowhere like this."
"I can take these kind of surprises any day! And I hear it's only been—what?—less than a week since you transferred. Everything must feel so very strange to you still."
It went without saying that his and Thea's existences had headed off in different directions back on Lifeside. She, of course, had already been well on her way toward some or other kind of immortality when they'd lost touch. And he... well, it was just one of those stupid lucky breaks. A short, ironic keyboard riff he'd written to help promote some old online performance thing—no, no, it was nothing she'd been involved in—had ended up being picked up many years later as the standard message-send fail signal on the global net. Yeah, that was the one. Of course, Thea knew it. Everyone, once they thought about it for a moment, did.
"You know, Jon," she says, her voice more measured now, "you're the one person I thought would never choose to make this decision. None of us can pretend that being Farside isn't a position of immense privilege, when most of the living can't afford food, shelter, good health. You always were a man of principle, and I sometimes thought you'd just fallen to... well, the same place that most performers fall, I suppose, which is no particular place at all. I even considered trying to find you and get in touch, offer..." She gestures around her. "Well, this. But you wouldn't have taken it, would you? Not on those terms."
He shakes his head. In so many ways she still has him right. He detested—no, he quietly reminds himself—
everything about this vast vampiric sham of a world that sucks life, hope, and power from the living. But she hadn't come to him, either, had she? Hadn't offered what she now so casually calls
For all her fame, for all her good works, for all the aid funds she sponsors and the good causes she promotes, Thea Lorentz and the rest of the dead have made no effort to extend their constituency beyond the very rich, and almost certainly never will. After all, why should they? Would the gods invite the merely mortal to join them on Mount Olympus?
She smiles and steps close to him again. Weights both his hands in her own. "Most people I know, Jon—most of those I have to meet and talk to and deal with, and even those I have to call friends—they all think that I'm Thea Lorentz. Both Farside and Lifeside, it's long been the same. But only you and a few very others really know who I am. You can't imagine how precious and important it is to have you here...."
He stands gazing at the door after she's left. Willing everything to dissolve, fade, crash, melt. But nothing changes. He's still dead. He's still standing here in this Farside room. Can still even breathe the faint patchouli of Thea's scent. He finishes dressing—a tie, a jacket, the same supple leather shoes he arrived in—and heads out into the corridor.
Elsinore really is
—and resolutely, heavily, emphatically, the ancient building it wishes to be. Cold gusts pass along its corridors. Heavy doors groan and creak. Of course, the delights of Farside are near-inf inite. He's passed through forests of mist and silver. Seen the vast, miles-wide back of some great island of a seabeast drift past when he was still out at sea. The dead can grow wings, sprout gills, spread roots into the soil and raise their arms and become trees. All these things are not only possible, but visibly, virtually, achievably real. But he thinks they still hanker after life, and all the things of life the living, for all their disadvantages, possess.
He passes many fine-looking paintings as he descends the stairs. They have a Pre-Raphaelite feel, and from the little he knows of art, seem finely executed, but he doesn't recognize any of them. Have these been created by virtual hands, in some virtual workshop, or have they simply sprung into existence? And what would happen if he took that sword that also hangs on display, and slashed it through a canvas? Would it be gone forever? Almost certainly not. One thing he knows for sure about the Farside's vast database is that it's endlessly backed up, scattered, diffused and re-collated across many secure and heavily armed vaults back in what's left of the world of the living. There are very few guaranteed ways of destroying any of it, least of all by the dead.
Further down, there are holo-images, all done in stylish black and white. Somehow, even in a castle, they don't even look out of place. Thea, as always, looks like she's stepped out of a fashion shoot. The dying jungle suits her. As does this war zone, and this flooded hospital, and this burnt-out shanty town. The kids, and it is mostly kids, who surround her with their pot bellies and missing limbs, somehow manage to absorb a little of her glamour. On these famous trips of hers back to view the suffering living, she makes an incredibly beautiful ghost.
Two big fires burn in Elsinore's great hall, and there's a long table for dinner, and the heads of many real and mythic creatures loom upon the walls. Basilisk, boar, unicorn... hardly noticing the chimera servant who rakes his chair out for him, Northover sits down. Thea's space at the top of the table is still empty.
In this Valhalla where the lucky, eternal dead feast forever, what strikes Northover most strongly is the sight of Sam Bartleby sitting beside Thea's vacant chair. Not that he doesn't know that the man has been part of what's termed
Thea Lorentz's inner circle
for more than a decade. But, even when they were all still alive and working together on
Bard on Wheels,
he'd never been able to understand why she put up with the man. Of course, Bartleby made his fortune with those ridiculous action virtuals, but the producers deepened his voice so much, and enhanced his body so ridiculously, that it was a wonder, Northover thought, they bothered to use the actor at all. Now, though, he's chosen to bulk himself out and cut his hair in a Roman fringe. He senses Northover's gaze, and raises his glass, and gives an ironic nod. He still has the self-regarding manner of someone who thinks himself far better looking, not to mention cleverer, than he actually is.
Few of the dead, though, choose to be beautiful. Most elect for the look that expresses themselves at what they thought of as the most fruitful and self-expressive period of their lives. Among people this wealthy, this often equates to late middle age. The fat, the bald, the matronly, and the downright ugly rub shoulders, secure in the knowledge that they can become young and beautiful again whenever they wish.